Fashion's dirty little secret
As controversial photographer Terry Richardson gets blacklisted from Vogue, the industry is braced for its own Weinstein-sized scandal
It's been said, more than once, that as the allegations of sexual harassment levelled at Harvey Weinstein gathered pace, a number of similarly powerful men might be quaking in their boots.
And as #metoo has lifted the lid on the sexual predators of Hollywood, it's now the influential powers of the modelling industry's turn to face scrutiny. Earlier this week, photographer and professional provocateur Terry Richardson was barred from working with some of the world's bestselling magazines. In an email circulated at Conde Nast - home to Vogue, GQ and Glamour - staff were told that any work already commissioned from Richardson, but not yet published, should be "killed or substituted with other material". And when Vogue et al declare you persona non grata, you may pretty much consider your fashion career dead in the water.
The email came days after a Sunday newspaper called the photographer 'the Harvey Weinstein of fashion'. And only last month, Richardson was photographed at New York Fashion Week with British Vogue's new editor, Edward Eninful.
You may or may not readily know Richardson's name, but you're certainly familiar with some of his work. Famed for directing Beyonce's 'XO' video and Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball' (in which she was filmed swinging from a wrecking ball naked), Richardson has photographed everyone from Madonna to Barack Obama. It's somewhat telling that Cyrus has since regretted such a provocative mov. "That's something you can't take away… swinging around naked on a wrecking ball lives forever. Once you do that in the mass that I did, it's forever," she said in an interview recently.
Yet it's Richardson's more outré works that have really earned him his enfant terrible tag. His modus operandi was to blow apart the stuffy world of haute couture with 'softcore porn' work that 'pushed boundaries'. Richardson soon became known for overly lit images stuffed to the seams with glamour and sex, served with a heavy side of hipster chic. Yet it's been years since the lines between Richardson's art, erotica and something more unsavoury began to blur. In a collection of his photographs entitled Kibosh, Richardson is seen engaging in several sex acts with models (in case you're wondering about logistics, many of the shots are taken by an assistant).
"Richardson is also famous for another reason: he has cultivated a reputation of being a professional debauchee, a proud pervert who has, outside his commercial work, produced a series of extremely explicit images - often including himself naked and erect -that many find pornographic and misogynistic, and which can make viewers distinctly uncomfortable," wrote Benjamin Wallace of New York magazine back in 2013.
Pretty soon, the floodgates were blown open and Richardson became dogged by allegations of misconduct during photo shoots.
Among those who spoke up back in 2014 were Emma Appleton, who alleged, using a screenshot of a conversation, that Richardson had offered her a shot at a Vogue editorial if she would have sex with him.
Another model, Anna del Gaizo, came forward with the story of what had happened to her when she was a 23-year-old model in 2008. She alleged Richardson had asked her to take her top off, and she obliged, and he later came into the shot and pressed himself, aroused, against her face. Richardson has previously defended his actions in the New York Post and insisted, like Weinstein, that all encounters had been consensual. "I collaborated with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work, and as is typical with any project, everyone signed releases... I have never used an offer of work or a threat of rebuke to coerce someone into something that they did not want to do," he has written. "I give everyone that I work with enough respect to view them as having ownership of their free will and making their decisions accordingly."
Still, 'Uncle Terry', as he likes to be called, was being repeatedly referred to in the mainstream media as 'fashion's shameful secret'. Some were quick to act on the information: Mango and H&M stopped working with him around this time. Yet in a rather unedifying twist, many others in the fashion and entertainment industries still kept hiring him.
Caryn Franklin, a former editor of the fashion magazine i-D, said Richardson's behaviour had been an open secret: "People were cagey... everyone knew someone who knew something." This week's Conde Nast revelation has prompted two burning questions. The first, of course, is why it took the fashion bible so long to blacklist the photographer in the face of several allegations. The second, and perhaps more pertinent one, is whether, in the fashion industry at least, 'Uncle Terry' is more the exception and less the rule. And it would seem Richardson is very much not alone.
Model Cameron Russell has instigated her own #metoo campaign on Instagram, inviting fashion models to blow the whistle on the culture of abuse within the industry. Her Instagram feed now has a slew of dispatches hinting at the darker side of the industry. Many of the women write of photographers who have demanded oral sex or masturbated in front of them, stylists who might touch them inappropriately during a fitting and agents apologise to clients if models refuse to go nude on demand.
Russell tells of her own experiences of "unwanted groping, spanking, pinching, pressure for dates, phone calls and texts of a sexual nature, lack of appropriate changing areas".
"We are not talking about one, five or even 20 men," she says. "We are talking about a culture of exploitation and it must stop."
But does that culture of exploitation exist here? It's virtually impossible to get any fashion insiders to discuss the topic, at least on the record. But one well-known Irish photographer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "I've shot nudity, but it has never been in an overly sexy or provocative way. If a model needs to change or undress, I make sure to leave the room or turn around.
"I've had some models approach me to do nude shots as they think it's something that will ultimately push their career. But I think there's a displacement of power," he adds. "I think some young people are under the influence of an older and more powerful person, and some think, 'if I do this, this hiccup will progress into a great career for me'.
"That sort of exploitation never happens in Ireland to the same extent as (Richardson)," he adds. "You might hear a model go, 'the photographer was hitting on me during the shoot', but that's it."
One unnamed model agent adds: "In a wider sense, the industry is a bit like a sweetie shop (for photographers). I do know it's particularly bad in places like Milan, where there are photographers who feel it's their god-given right to 'push boundaries'. But when we are sending girls to agencies in other countries, we are especially vigilant. We tell them they don't have to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If that happens, they need to ring us at the agency immediately.
"In Ireland, it happens to a much lesser extent," she adds. "That said, there are one or two photographers that I probably wouldn't send a new girl to. It wouldn't be appropriate to put them in a position where they have to go into a situation they couldn't cope with."